In past years, I’ve thought (and written) a lot about the conflict between the Greek approach to life as it opposed our ancestors’. Although much richer in its reality, it represents to us the exclusively empirical approach which, in today’s western societies, has very much degenerated to obsession with the superficial. The Torah’s tradition, on the other hand, while acknowledging the validity of empirical reality also recognizes the reality of the intuitive, spiritual realm, largely through the ongoing engagement with Talmud which forces the student to think linearly and laterally, empirically and intuitively, practically and inspired, all simultaneously.
Rather than merely rehashing those thoughts, both to myself and in my writing, once again, as we are often and dangerously tempted with yearly cycles of observances, I tried to bring it a little farther along this year. I think I must be getting somewhere with these thoughts since I’m not able to resolve them. Also, it’s a little embarrassing since my ideas take many fewer words than this introduction…. But if you have any ideas or comments, I want to specially invite you to use the comment form.
It seems that the realm of the empirical reveals the concept of Absolute while the intuitive necessitates the existence of Relative. Both from that idea and from observing “real life”, it appears obvious to me that both relatives and absolutes always exist. (It’s ironic, but very understandable how, in revolt against the contemporary superficial world view, which promotes absolutist thinking, those who rebel embrace the other absurd and untenable extreme of “absolute” relativism, that there is no “objective” reality but that all is “narrative” and equally-valid opinions.)
An important challenge, therefore, is to identify which propositions are, in fact, absolute and which are relative ones. Of course, a paradox immediately emerges from this–is it possible to create an empirical, i.e. absolute definition of Absolute, thus defining as Relative everything that isn’t Absolute?
Actually, this is a critical question in contemporary Judaism. Is there any Absolute other than God? And are there any boundaries to Jewish practice? How far does Relativism extend, remembering the imperative (absolute?) that each neshama, soul, is unique and, thus, has a unique mandate and a unique approach to God. The answer seems that there is a limited range of scope in which interpretations can be, relative to the absolute of God Himself, perhaps scaled at 70 (faces of Torah, nations, languages), as discussed in a previous article, or perhaps a much larger, but still finite one, the 600,000 souls present at Sinai.
Each year we face the same battle our ancestors did, to resist the stagnation of a fully empirical mind. Merely pulling in the opposite direction, insisting on a fully relative world, is equally wrong and a waste of time. Perhaps the flames of our candles, the only actual mitzva of Chanukah, provide the hint. They rise up, lifting off but not quite detaching, from the wick.